With fuel prices through the roof, it's becoming increasingly cost prohibitive to fly colleagues in from remote offices for "in person" meetings. More and more business is being handled via phone calls, e-mail, and instant messaging, but these methods of communications can leave a lot to be desired, especially for groups of more than two or three people.
Voice-only conference calls can be confusing, since it's often difficult to recognize who's talking. There's often a lag time with e-mail, and some persons on the cc: list may not check their mail often or may forget to copy everyone on their responses. Text IM offers "real time" interaction but conversational threads can be difficult to follow with several people sending input simultaneously.
More importantly, according to many psychologists who specialize in human communications, anywhere from 65 to 95 percent of our communication is non-verbal — we express our meanings not just (or even mostly) through our words, but with facial expressions and body language.
The problem is that most of today's businesses deal with people outside their local geographic area. One way to maintain "face time" without incurring outrageous travel expenses is to use technology to bring people together even when they're widely dispersed. Video conferencing, real-time two-way digital transmission of video and audio signals sent simultaneously to multiple locations, is finally coming into its own. And as your organization grows (especially if your budget shrinks or remains static), you're more likely to need to incorporate video conferencing in your network's functionality.
Video conferencing requirements
The first step in planning a video conferencing solution is to analyze the organization's needs. Some questions you need to answer include:
- What quality does the video transmission need to be? Will you be just looking at faces, or will you also be watching demonstrations, whiteboard presentations, and such across the video link?
- What are the bandwidth capabilities of all locations that will be involved in the video conferencing?
- How many people will typically participate in a conference?
- Do you need extra features such as the ability to view others' computer screens (for example, for a PowerPoint presentation), download files, present drawings and photos on screen to the group, poll participants, show virtual "seating arrangements" and so forth?
- Do you prefer to conference via a Web browser or through proprietary software?
- Do participants need to be able to join the conference using different operating system platforms? Do participants need to be able to connect from handheld devices over mobile networks such as 3G?
- How secure do your meetings need to be?
- What is your budget for video conferencing software, hardware, and/or services?
If you have the answers to these questions in mind as you shop for video conferencing solutions, you can quickly sort through the feature sets of different products to zero in on those that best serve your needs.
Video conferencing implementations
Video conferencing implementations range from the very simple to the very complex. Simple solutions allow point-to-point video communications; that is, you can communicate with one other person, as you do in a regular telephone call. More complex systems allow multi-point video communications, where several people are linked simultaneously.
There are many software programs, including freeware programs, that allow you to simply "call" another participant via computer/domain name or IP address, and transfer video and audio (assuming, of course, that both computers are equipped with cameras and microphones).
Multi-point conferencing systems usually require special hardware and software and use compression techniques to enhance performance, echo cancellation, and camera/movement tracking for better quality video. These IP video conferencing systems are usually dependent on the H.323 protocols or the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).
The H.323 standards allocate unique user numbers to each endpoint (H.323 terminal), which is registered with an H.323 Gatekeeper that manages voice and video communications and translates between H.323 user numbers and IP addresses. The gatekeeper also allows administrators to monitor the communications of the H.323 endpoints. Gateways (as distinguished from gatekeepers) can translate between switched-circuit networks such as ISDN and packet-switching networks (IP networks). H.323 multi-point conferencing (three or more participants) also requires the use of a Multi-point Conference Server (MCS) or Multi-point Control Unit (MCU). Here's more information about H.323 networking components.
SIP is a simpler protocol. Its components are a user agent (which initiates, receives and terminates voice or video calls), a SIP registrar that keeps up with users' locations, a SIP redirect server and a proxy server. You can find out more about SIP at http://www.sipcenter.com.
Another consideration is unicast vs. multicast video conferencing. In a multi-point conference, with unicast a separate stream is sent to each participant. With multicast, only one stream is sent for each multicast group, no matter how many clients are in that group. This results in a huge decrease in network bandwidth used.
Video conferencing solutions
You can do simple, one-to-one video conferencing with popular IM programs such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). This is a way to get started in video conferencing without any extra software expenditures, since the Messenger programs are free. If you only need to hold an occasional video conference on a one-to-one basis, and you don't need high quality or advanced features, this is the most cost-effective solution.
As the organization grows, you're likely to need more sophisticated video conferencing for larger groups. At that point, you can decide whether to deploy your own video conferencing servers or use a video conferencing service.
Large organizations can deploy solutions such as Microsoft's Live Meeting. Since it's a hosted service, you don't have to deploy server software. People using non-Windows platforms can participate through a Web browser based client. With the Live Meeting add-in, you can conduct meetings directly from Microsoft Office programs. For more information, see http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/FX010909711033.aspx.
Another popular conferencing service is Webex. It is browser based and offers a suite of on-demand applications for special purposes, such as creating virtual classrooms or giving sales presentations. Although pricey, these services have the advantage of "no surprises" budgeting — you know the full cost up front and eliminate the costs of administration and technical support.
If you prefer more control, video conferencing packages such as RADVISION are available for enterprise level conferencing.
During the selection process, be sure to keep scalability in mind. As video conferencing becomes more common, more people will be comfortable conducting business this way, which will lead to even greater popularity, so plan for growth.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.